Knowledge Matters blog

Behind the scenes at the British Library

27 July 2023

Following in the Footsteps of Adventurous Women | User Stories

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Writer Rachel Hewitt used the British Library to research her non-fiction book, In Her Nature. Weaving together history and memoir, it’s a gripping exploration of how women encounter the great outdoors. The book was awarded the 2019 Writers Award for non-fiction by our Eccles Centre for American Studies   

The book starts with a story about a time when I went into a shop to buy some new running shoes. There was an overwhelming choice of running shoes on the shelves, but I was told by the shop assistant that, out of this plethora of different options, only four were fitted for women’s feet. When I asked why, he said – well, men have been running since Ancient Greece, but women only started in the 1970s, and so kit designers have been designing for the male form for thousands of years, but for women, only 50. 

At the time, I nodded and smiled, but afterwards I wondered if it were true. It suddenly seemed to me quite an extraordinary claim to make, that women only started running and hiking and mountaineering in the 1970s. But it was a claim I found repeated by a number of scholars and writers. One historical scholar described women’s place in sport as ‘handkerchief-fluttering spectators’. The cursory research I did led me to conclude that the man in the shop was right, but then I found Lizzie Le Blond. 

 

The photographs demolished what I’d been told 

She was a mountaineer, and a photographer of sport and outdoor landscapes. I came across a digital archive of thousands and thousands of photographs of women, charging up and down mountain slopes, playing ice hockey and tennis, tobogganing headfirst, 70 miles an hour, down the Cresta Run in St Moritz in Switzerland. This was in the 1880s and 1890s. The photographs demolished what I’d been told, and that stereotype of Victorian women as afraid to show an ankle, reclining on sofas. Instead, here they were, muscular, sweaty and getting joy out of sport. 

Lizzie’s photographs showed me a world I hadn’t known existed. She herself started mountaineering in the 1880s, and was incredibly successful and well known, but around the beginning of the 20th century, there was a shift in the culture of sport and outdoor leisure, in which women were progressively marginalised. The book is about why women were driven out of sport, and, arguably, out of feeling comfortable in the public sphere. For a long period in the 19th century, women’s outdoor achievements were celebrated, but now this history has been forgotten. 

 

My working life runs according to the Library

The British Library’s been my main place to work since I was doing my PhD. I used to have a very specific desk that I worked at. I think everyone has their own sense of which is their desk. I've always worked in the Rare Books & Music Reading Room, but when I was writing my first book, which is about the history of the Ordnance Survey, I did quite a lot of work in the Maps Reading Room.

Even now, when I live in Yorkshire and don’t go to the Library very often, I always think of my working life as running according to its opening hours. Eight o’clock is clocking off time, because that’s when the British Library shuts. I absolutely love the Boston Spa reading rooms, and did a lot of work on the book there. The staff are so helpful, and it feels like such a privilege to be in a village in North Yorkshire and able to access collections that normally you'd expect to have to travel four or five hours to see. 

I was completely over the moon when In Her Nature was awarded an Eccles Prize. The money was hugely helpful, and it was also a vote of confidence in the book. The support of the Eccles Centre, and the international texts and historical figures they introduced me to, helped me make the book more impactful.

 

There was a wealth of stories about witches

What I really love about the British Library is the speed with which books and journals can be ordered to your desk. It allows you to go down little rabbit holes, explore threads of ideas and ascertain quite quickly whether they're going to pay off into something that becomes an important part of a book.

The last chapter of In Her Nature is about a long-distance walking path called the Lyke Wake Walk, which spans the entire historical width of the North York Moors. There's this mythology that's built up around it. In Boston Spa, I was reading some old editions of The Dalesman magazine, dating back to 1955, by Bill Cowley, the person who devised the walk. He wanted any woman who completed it to be known as a witch. 

So I ordered up all these books on the witches of North Yorkshire, and realised that in Glaisdale, where Cowley lived, there was a wealth of stories about witches: women who enjoyed running through the heather; hares that might be witches in disguise. It chimed beautifully with the idea explored in my book that women are seen as transgressive when they seize their freedom outdoors. It also showed me the history of the area I live in – in a slightly different light. 

 

When I first started running, I was often afraid

In Her Nature includes a memoir strand, about my experiences running and exploring outdoors. I feel that those experiences are very much shaped by the fact that I'm female. I think any woman going outdoors – say, walking a particular path across a dark park at night – consciously or unconsciously undergoes some kind of risk assessment. She thinks – well, it would be ten minutes quicker for me to get home if I cross this park, but then again, I might be killed.

One of the things I do when I'm running is to weigh up the benefits of going for a run, versus the things that I'm scared of. When I first started running, I was often afraid. Writing the book, I came to realise that when I underwent these risk assessments in the past, I hadn’t valued how significant freedom is: the ability to move freely and comfortably around outdoor space. For women, it’s important to get out there and assert our right to freedom. 

As told to Lucy Peters

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